Monday, 5 October 2009


I am on the Vanguard.

That is, the Caledonian Vanguard, somewhere west of Shetland, bobbing up and down not quite as violently as the last few days, but still enough to send me careering high speed down a corridor and into a wall if I neglect to remember my surroundings.

I've been here since Wednesday, when I strode manfully on to this large stand-by safety vessel on yet another "data" mission. This is one of these jobs where, in essence, I chuck a big lump of metal into a random point in the sea, and then make some prayers. If these prayers are heard, I will not only have located the correct location, via GPS, in a seemingly infinite stretch of waves, but my sonar will be speaking to another sonar 500m underwater. I'm a deeply irreligious man, as you may know, but my prayers often seem to be answered, so I can only imagine that God thinks I'm "pretty",

The boat I'm on, the Vanguard, is actually rather nice. My experience of these kind of vessels might not be authoritive, but I've been on enough to know that I don't fancy being a regular seafarer. My usual experience is of relatively clean ships, with friendly enough crews, and surprisingly good food, but always there's an absolute lack of contact with the outside world. Save perhaps a satellite phone, communication is nil - no TV, no regular phone, no internet. You have the sense you could sail back into a post-apocalyptic land and say "Oh, when did that happen?" Cut-off from the normal world may seem quite appealing if, say, you're alone on a lovely island with a long-limbed lady, but on a battered boat with some brusque and burly gentlemen the appeal is not so great.

But this boat is set up for TV and internet, so I've been able to watch the football, the news, and flick through the six channels wondering why nothing is on. The internet means I'm still in touch with all my beloveds, and that work can repeatedly contact with me yet more demands and stern orders... it's ok, I can just pretend the connection is "down" again.

I also have a one-man room, which is a luxury never before experienced in my three plus years of oilfield experience. As you can no doubt imagine, I have been spending a considerable amount of time fully naked. Yes, fully.

The crew of the boat are a mixture of either slightly depressed/autistic or Rangers supporters, but are not entirely hostile and have been perfectly helpful and cooperative. The captain is great though. A pleasant and well-spoken English gent, it seems as though he should be sailing a small yacht with his delightful wife and has just somehow strayed onto this big boat. He's been ever so friendly and eager to make sure our stay is comfortable, and is a most genial host, but I can't help but feel it's a great shame he's not quietly enjoying a Mediterranean sunset at sea with a glass of wine, because on this big muscular supply vessel he seems awfully confused. He wanders about with a cup of tea, swaying masterfully with the boat's rocking, and seems rather baffled about what's going on. I don't doubt his ability on the sea, and would trust him implicity with our yacht should I be his wife, but his grasp of anything resembling modern technology leaves him stranded. Even - or perhaps especially - email. A simple request for him to email the nearby FPSO (a kind of rig) for a Permit to Work (required for our sonar stuff) became a jumbled world of complexity. I would compare it to trying to explain to my grandfather how to operate a computer, except my grandfather is quite good at computers these days. "How do I send this thing?" or "Where did that file save to?" followed by a ten minute trawl through folders looking for a file, the name of which he's forgotten. Or the most ponderous possible scrolling up and down looking for an email sent two days prior, or the horrors of watching him trying to send an attachment. In one sense, it's quaintly charming, in another it's tear-your-hair-out frustrating, especially when it delays your time-limited work by an hour-and-a-half.

It also becomes somewhat concerning when you watch three other crew members gather round to show him how to operate a console that sets the ship's location, and he keeps exclaiming "Oh!" while pressing the wrong thing.

Nevertheless, on Friday and Saturday, our allocated days of work, we correctly got on location and, after a small delay, were able to commence work. When I say "we" I mean myself and my colleague, known here and elsewhere as The Mud Shark. The Mud Shark is not a typical colleague in the sense of some "youth" I've got to order about and discipline, and teach spanner grips or how to photoshop a nice pressure graph; no, The Mud Shark is a very experienced software engineer who designed most of the stuff we run, and was also the first ever employee of the company! Crikey. So I could trust him with all the fancy computer stuff, while I dealt with the seas, tightened a few nuts and bolts, and wrestled with the crew.

The details of the next 36 hours have been saved for the official report and job log, which you must trust me doesn't belong on a jaunty blog such as this, but featured toils, tribulations, but ultimately was successful enough. Initially, weather conditions were gentle, but getting the actual data was troublesome and took all kinds of tricks and shenanigans to acquire. By Friday night, the weather was picking up and by Saturday morning the boat was a-rocking all over the place, with crazy waves, and 50 knot winds (I don't know mow much a knot is exactly, but 50 of them are lots). The boat was straining to stay in position but our little 20kg sonar held out impressively, though I was in constant fear of a wire snapping and it being lost forever. One costs about £20,000 - that's almost a month's wage!

Eventually, and after getting to radio the nearby FPSO to demand they "turn off the gas lift - NOW", we started getting lots of lovely data, all of it in fact, and just before the Vanguard actually turned over and sank, we got everything set and were able to move from location. In howling winds and waves, the sonar was retrieved, and I was able to sleep for fitfully for almost 12 hours straight.

And since then, it's just been life at sea and life at leisure. The work is done, so now I'm just waiting to go home. The boat has a few little weather-dependent jobs to do, but weather is fairly calm right now and it seems to be doing them. If that goes ahead, then I hope to back in Aberdeen by Wednesday. And in true sailor fashion, I intend to get blasted on rum and sweet-talk a few shady ladies into compromising deals. So no change there then.

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